I felt briefly optimistic after Wednesday night’s debate between Emmanuel Macron and Marine Le Pen.
- Coincidence or not, 'false information' buoys Le Pen's smear tactics
- Counting down the hours before France could become a police state
- French election: Jews, Muslims and Protestants rally against Le Pen - but Catholics stay put
All of the things that people say about Le Pen - that she has worked hard to come across effectively on television, presenting herself as tough but caring and reassuring, communicating the things that so many people want and need to hear, even if they lack any real substance – turned out to be utterly untrue, as untrue as the multiple lies she told over the course of the evening.
Macron, who didn’t perform particularly well during the first debate that took place with all 11 candidates, this time round was confident, quick-witted, lucid and – dare I say it – presidential. I believe that France will be in good hands if he wins on Sunday.
Le Pen was confused, inchoate, aggressive and, crucially, unable to communicate anything much about her programme. She could have been drunk. She floundered badly on the economy and Europe, and even on terrorism and security, where she might have been expected to score points against Macron. Even her supporters were embarrassed by her performance.
The previous night, in a restaurant in Paris with friends, we got into conversation with a couple of fifth-year architecture students sitting at the table next to ours. Of course the elections came up and we asked if they were planning to vote. “We will be voting ‘blanc’”, blank ballots, they said. They explained to us, as though we were the idiots, that Le Pen and Macron are each as evil and incompetent as the other. “We refuse the financialisation of France,” the girl said, her eyes gleaming with ideological fervor as she picked fastidiously at her dessert. “We do not want Macron to win.”
The girl became very animated when I asked her whether she was afraid of the damage that Marine Le Pen would do to the economy, with her commitment to leaving the euro: “My parents have friends who opened a café and they went bankrupt. That is so wrong! That is not the France that we want to be living in! That is not the future we choose!”
They expressed no reservations about Le Pen’s racism, her commitment to closing borders, expelling illegal immigrants, ending automatic French nationality for those born in France, and prioritizing jobs, welfare, housing, schools, or any area of public provision for French nationals.
“Anyway, she won’t be able to do anything. We will protest against her!”
I suggested that Le Pen could well curtail their freedom to demonstrate, in the name of security. “That won’t change anything,” the boy said. “We have no freedom any more. All our civil liberties have already been swept away by Hollande”. For all their education, they seemed to have no knowledge of either economics or history. “Macron offers France nothing. Le Pen cannot be any worse than him.”
We hear about the disenfranchised unemployed factory workers of the northern industrial heartlands voting Le Pen, and we try to understand their hopelessness, to acknowledge that they have been ignored by generations of politicians. Le Pen has listened to them, and they believe, like many who voted for Trump, that she really is the only candidate who has their concerns at the centre of her program. But if Marine Le Pen does win on Sunday it will not be because she swept up half the country’s vote; it will be at least partly thanks to the hordes of ideologically pure abstainers – including in my own network of mostly left and centre-left friends and acquaintances, university professors, teachers, students, writers, artists, people who work in insurance, lawyers - nihilistically sticking two fingers up to the system, actively looking forward to its implosion.
Not all young people have lost their reason. My own teenage kids were out at the weekend to deface Le Pen posters with witty graffiti. They have been debating the issues with their friends, cousins and fellow students, many of whom, like them, have lived or have family abroad. This may be why they’re open to Macron and his outward-looking, optimistic attitude to both Europe and globalization. My children are proud Europeans, holding British and French nationalities, aware of how fortunate they are, disappointed in Brexit, disgusted by Le Pen. They are what I hope the future looks like. They are the reason I hope and pray that wisdom will prevail on Sunday.
Natasha Lehrer is literary editor of the Jewish Quarterly. She writes for, among others, The Times Literary Supplement, the Guardian, The Nation and The Jewish Chronicle. She won the 2016 Scott Moncrieff prize for literary translation, for Suite for Barbara Loden by Nathalie Léger. Follow her on Twitter: @natashalehrer